The secret execution of Russian writer Isaac Babel in 1940 was one of the atrocities against renowned authors committed under Stalin. He was arrested, executed on a charge of espionage, but exonerated some 15 years after his murder. Now director David Novak has made a film chronicling the search of Babel’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, to find where Babel has been buried and to trace his writings and his path in life.
The scenes of interviews with Babel’s widow, Antonia Pirozhkova, who lived until 2010, are moving for the pain she long carried with her, especially when describing the procedure of the arrest and his disappearance into prison. The grandson, obviously proud of his heritage, is also tracked to the place where Babel lived before being seized. But he is barred from entering the current development out of fear by the guard that there could still be repercussions. Later, when Malaev-Babel finally gets to the burial place, his is frustrated because it is a mass grave of victims who cannot be individually identified.
Especially interesting is the examination of Babel’s prison files, including his signatures on false confessions elicited under the psychological (and perhaps physical) tortures common to those times.
Liev Schreiber lends his mellifluous voice to reading translated experts of Babel’s writing, with scenic work provided as illustrations. Many people are interviewed as the film follows the path of Babel’s growing up in Odessa, and also captures a rehearsal of Babel’s play “Maria” in Paris.
It is tragic that much of his writing has disappeared, perhaps destroyed by the authorities under Stalin for his critical viewpoints expressed in his literature. Major works that survive include the published “Odessa Tales” and “Red Cavalry.”
At times “Finding Babel” meanders too much, but when it gets down to its major sections, it strikes strong blows for the further recognition of a major writer and a grim reminder of the horror that befell so many who grew up believing in a system supposedly idealistic but descending to ruthless dictatorship. The point is made that the continued reading of Babel is his greatest memorial. Reviewed October 28, 2016.